It didn’t end up being Millie Dioli that they went to meet with first.
Actually, it didn’t end up being them going to meet with someone at all, the first time.
A senior, a kid they didn’t recognize at all, came up to them after fencing club. He was awkward and lanky, someone who looked like, Diane thought, he might grow into his body and his face in a few years.
He hadn’t taken part in the club, but he’d watched with a hungry look on his face.
Now he was aiming the same hungry look at Diane and Barbara.
“You’re… You’re Diane, right? And, uh, Barbara.”
“That’s us,” Diane agreed. There were some things – most things – that Barbara took lead on. Queen Diane the Kind got missions like this. “I’m sorry, you’re-?”
“Edward. Ah. Ed Parker.” He thrust out his hand. “People are saying. Uh. They’re saying.” He dropped his voice to his whisper. “That you fight like something out of a King Arthur movie. And I was wondering. If…. oh.” He looked in surprise as Diane shook his hand. “Yes.” He looked around and then bowed over the hand deeply. “If you might have a reason for that, maybe? Um. That is.” He released her hand and backed up, like he was expecting to be hit.
“Of course we have a reason,” Barbara answered. She had a habit of doing that. Diane picked up smoothly where she had, well, maybe not meant to leave off but at least left an opening. “The question is – do you have a reason for asking us?”
He looked up at them. “Have you been to Hardrioan?”
“No,” Diane answered quietly. “But we’ve been to Ombrion. Did they, ah. Did the portals stop working for you?” He wasn’t quite past puberty, but he was a lot older than them.
“No.” He shook his head. “No, we – I got out. And I didn’t want to go back after that. But if I’d learned how to fence, like you two, like your friends do heavy weapons. Maybe then. I mean.” He cleared his throat again.
Diane filled in many of the blanks. “You’re welcome to come and train with us. If nothing else, the more people here, the less the administration will think we’re doing sketchy.”
“You were gone for a long time once, weren’t you? I remember. You were grounded.” His voice seemed to be gaining strength as they didn’t chase him away, but on the other hand, he kept looking over his shoulder, like he was expecting someone – anyone – to come up behind him. “Someone. Not this school, couple years older. Girl I know. She said, she said something similar happened, but she wouldn’t say more. But fencing?” He perked up. “I can really….”
They were going to have to tread carefully with this one. And they were going to have to find out where Hardrioan was, whether they went there or not. It sounded, Diane thought, like one of those places that they’d been warned about. And if that was the case…
…well, they were going to, at the least, arm Ed Parker with more than just some fencing lessons.
Diane tried to ignore the way he looked at her. She’d encountered it before, tried to forget it, only to encounter it again. They had been to Ombrion more times than she could count. They had grown to adulthood at least three of those times. And she knew the look of a puppy who needed someone to handle him…
Ralph. She held out her hand to Ed. “I want you to meet a friend of mine. Someone else who has – who understands, let’s say that. All right?”
Ralph was good with puppies. And Ralph was also pretty good with people dealing with puppy love. He’d had more than a little experience with that.
Ed took her hand, looking only a little surprised. Mostly, he looked grateful.
He looked less grateful when she led him to the back of the playground, where Ralph and Clarence were teaching a very unofficial class in bare-handed combat. She wasn’t sure, from the looks of the school bully, if they had started out teaching a class or turned something else into an object lesson. She just hoped they kept it out of the teachers’ sight.
She held Ed’s hand tighter as he tried to pull away. “Trust me?”
Queen Diane the Kind was very trustworthy.
“I… Yeah. It’s them I’m worried about, ma’am.”
“Miss,” she corrected. “Here, now, it pretty much has to be ‘miss.’ They’re not going to hurt you. I give you my word. What they can do is help you. Ralph!”